Books: Final curtain for the shocking horror show
It's time to scrap those cyborgs. Scary genetic science owes popular culture a new mythology, argues Marina Benjamin
Saturday 23 May 1998
by Jon Turney
Yale University Press, pounds 19.95
Amid the brouhaha surrounding the birth of Dolly the sheep - the calls for strict regulation of embryological research combined with warnings that the integrity of life itself was threatened - few of us paused to consider the gap between science fact and science fiction. Instead, we imagined that a simple 12-step programme was all that lay between Dolly and Jurassic Park, just as earlier we had believed that only a slip of the test-tube separated recombinant DNA from The Andromeda Strain, and IVF technology from Aldous Huxley's "hatcheries".
As Jon Turney points out, almost every breakthrough in biotechnology has been greeted with a familiar hue and cry. Are we right to meddle with processes we do not fully understand? What powers are we unleashing? Have we gone too far in our bid to control life? Where will it all end? The answer to these questions is always the same: yes, yes, yes and, as one critic put it, "test-tube babies, Hitler and the Master Race".
Looming behind such fears, argues Turney, is the spectre of Frankenstein, the mad fictional doctor obsessed with obtaining God-like powers. He suggests that Mary Shelley's story has retained its power because it speaks directly to our anxieties about body violation and our need to maintain a stable identity. Turney traces the life of the Frankenstein myth as it has accompanied biologists through their travails, sprouting new forms along the way. His prime sources are newspapers, popular science books, films, novels and cartoons.
All the usual suspects are present. Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau cast their shadow over vivisectionists and Brave New World brings to account those dabblers in ectogenesis. But one of this book's delights is that it draws attention to lesser-known fictions such as Julian Huxley's "The Tissue Culture King", which takes its anti-hero Hascombe into darkest Africa, where he beguiles a tribe with the mysteries of blood histology.
With Dolly behind us, Turney suspects that our tendency to frame debates about biotechnology in terms of Frankenstein will fade. In one sense, this should have happened sooner, since all Mary Shelley had to build on were twitching frogs' legs and the rumour that Erasmus Darwin had induced a piece of vermicelli to move of its own accord.
In spite of its juicy detail, sometimes reads like a trainspotter's manual: one gets hungry for analysis. Does Turney think the scientific imagination and the SF imagination have anything in common? How far have scientists internalised the Frankenstein myth? And what does he make of the fact that contraception and IVF - ostensibly the products of masculine science run riot - have given power to women?
To the extent that we have begun anthropomorphising our own genes (by according them goals and desires) perhaps we need a new monster-myth to speak out for ambivalence towards biotechnology. It would need to be a viral myth - to address our current fears of sabotage from within.
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